Africans say 'no deal' to $14 million movie studio

Local South Africans recently refused to sell ancestral land to filmmakers eager for a desert set.

Hannes Thiart
No deal: Local resident Ina Basson reads Desert Star Studio’s 102-page scoping report for turning her people’s ancestral lands into a movie set.

A filmmaker's dream of building a Hollywood-style studio in the northern part of South Africa has been blocked after a passionate campaign by the local Khoi-San community.

Residents of the remote and desolate town of Pella say they do not care about the millions of dollars promised or the prospect of A-list celebrities flying in on private jets and instead wanted to keep their "sacred" scrubland, which was won in battle by their forefathers.

Desert Star Studios wanted to transform their ancestral lands into a giant studio featuring biblical and cowboy film sets, production offices, stunt tracks, storehouses, and workshops, plus a luxury resort, golf course, and private landing strip.

The consortium planned to spend $14 million on the project which it says would create 18,000 jobs and generate a further $14.2 million income for the area over the next 10 years – a huge sum for a relatively poor province.

A visit to the semi-desert area can see its potential. The flat scrubland nestles between giant mountains under clear blue skies. There are hidden valleys cut by tributaries to the mighty Orange River, and one mountain resembling the doomed Israeli fortress of Masada.

But the filmmakers underestimated the will of the local 5,000-strong population who put the spiritual value of the land over any potential economic gain and nixed the plan last month.

"No money in the world can buy this land," says Ina Basson, secretary of the Pella Community Forum. "It is ours and has sentimental value. Our forefathers fought the Germans for this land and had to battle to keep it. They have spilled blood for the land and for us, and it is not for sale.

"[The producers] said Mel Gibson and Halle Berry would fly in to do movies, and that Tiger Woods would design the golf course," adds Ms. Basson. "We don't care about them. We want to live here."

Desert Star Studios is a joint partnership between South African companies Film Afrika and Charis Productions and US companies Camel Eye Productions and Promenade Pictures.

Rudolf Markgraaff, chief executive at Charis Productions, says his firm had already lined up a film for next year called The Lamb, a "Ben Hur-type" biblical production with a budget of $16 million.

"We had hundreds of meetings with local people, the Northern Cape provisional government, and local council but there's been misinformation and a lack of political will," says Mr. Markgraaff.

"We thought we did have a deal. The provincial government said we could have a 99-year lease instead of buying the land outright which we agreed. But we never heard anything."

The plans would have seen the consortium pay $1.5 million for 62,000 acres, which Markgraaff says is three times its value. The residents would also get a 74,000-acre plot in Goeboop – some 50 miles away – as further compensation.

After Desert Star Productions first courted local and provincial governments, potential partners, and produced a glossy 102-page brochure that included a letter of support from Mel Gibson, the management approached the residents at public meetings on site.

The Rev. Cyril Smith, whose cathedral would have been made into a Mexican village film set, says the consortium miscalculated the level of opposition and the legal status of the land. "They should have consulted the residents first but they didn't, which made them very angry," he says. "The government, as trustees, aren't allowed to sell this land without their consent, so the film studios will not happen."

Markgraaff says he was surprised at the opposition. "This area is desperately poor with 70 percent unemployment, high rates of AIDS, and limited facilities like hospitals and schools.

"We had letters of support from the [African National Congress] Youth League, the ANC Women's League, and another group begging us to make it happen," Markgraaff says. "They're not doing anything with this land."

"You only have to look at Quarzazate in Morocco to see the potential," says Markgraaff. "There was nothing there before they built production facilities – now they've produced 42 films in the past 10 years attracting investment of $1.2 billion."

He said the consortium has now agreed to a deal with a landowner across the border in Namibia to build a studio there.

Property and land consultant T.C. Cherry, who sits on the board of the South African Property Owners Association, says: "Residents want to be involved in the process from the start and be consulted.

"There's a saying that 'land is the currency of Africa,' " he adds, "and people who have fought hard to get it back from colonial times are loathe to give it up."

One of Pella's oldest residents, farmer Piet Eiman, is pleased by Desert Star's decision.

"Not even a handful will I sell to them," he says, holding pieces of soil in his hands. "We are part of the land, it can support you from a baby, to a young child, to a man. It is part of us."

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